The Democratic Deficit, Crisis and Participatory Democracy

Why is Participation Important?

In the past decade, the theme of participation has increasingly gained more prominence within the fields of governance and development. It is being mainstreamed within the policy making process, in public planning and in public monitoring, slowly gaining legitimacy and taking a place as a viable alternative (or valuable contribution) to standard development and political paradigms. Simply put, participation entails the right of citizens to be included within decision-making processes.

However, we must still ask the question of why participation is important, or, perhaps a more pressing question is: why is participation necessary in the first place? Participation is necessary because the modes of thought, disciplines and institutions which have traditionally informed the fields of governance and development in the past century are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and accountability. Moreover, novel contingencies such as the ecological crisis, food insecurity and the global financial meltdown are putting such institutions under unprecedented levels of pressure. Participation is thus seen as a way to render existing institutions more accountable, transparent and efficient. Mainstreaming a re-invigorated conception of democratic citizenship within contemporary governance institutions is therefore the answer to the economic and political crisis of liberal democracies.

Some, however, would still raise the question: but is our present system that bad? Does it actually need to be re-conceptualized? Does the frightening word “participation” (which evokes the terror of Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty) be included within the discourse of a system which, after all, has generated wealth for many, defeated totalitarianisms, instituted countless democracies and defended human rights? One might detect here a hint of Fukuyama’s thesis and reach the conclusion that our system, namely the capitalist liberal democracy, is not perfect but it’s the best system we have (as put by Churchill), and that giving it sufficient time to fix its present problems is better than risking a “citizen revolution” (see Ecuador) that could spiral out of control and into a totalitarian regime thereby losing our sacrosanct individual rights.

It is exactly these questions and deductions which we must contest by demonstrating that this system really is in a serious crisis, and that time is running out. I therefore agree with Zizek’s statement of how liberalism died twice at the dawn of the 21st century: knocked out firstly by the jab of 9-11 and secondly by the hook of the financial meltdown (Zizek 2009). To this we must add the utter failure of developed and developing nation’s governments of reaching any form of meaningful agreement aimed at halting global warming and dealing with the looming ecological crisis.

Yet, the problems are not only to be found in the realm of power politics and political economy. The root cause of crisis, I believe, resides not in a “mismanagement” of the political and economic institutions of the system per se, but in the very epistemological framework which upholds the system and its institutions in the first place; and, taking it a step further, in the symbolic framework within which democracy is exercised (Mouffe 2001). Fixing the system would therefore require us to challenge the very notions of what a democratic regime actually is. Without a radical challenge and critique of these notions, proposing alternatives becomes impossible, for the simple fact that they would build upon the faulty foundations of a system whose alleged “sustainability” is inscribed within the logics of crisis.

The Democratic Deficit

In the past decade there has been a growing consensus regarding the democratic deficit affecting the liberal representative democratic model. This is often referred to as a crisis of accountability, a crisis of legitimacy and a general loss of trust in political representatives and in democratic institutions (Cornwall 2001). Robert A. Dahl points out that citizen confidence in democratic institutions of the trilateral democracies (North America, Europe and Japan) has rapidly declined since the 1980s. Although citizens still believe in democracy as the appropriate model of governance there is a widespread feeling that key democratic institutions are increasingly removed from and unaccountable to the citizen. (Dahl 2000)

In the U.S.A., Theda Skocpol denounces the loss of civic political participation in government as a cause for the grave contemporary democratic deficit. For her, the loss of the Tocquevillian characteristics of civic association which had nurtured U.S.A. democracy in the past have been replaced by a conception of the citizen understood as a consumer rather than a member of society. As a result “early twenty-first-century Americans live in a diminished democracy, in a much less participatory and more oligarchicly managed civic world.”(Skocpol 2003)

Gaventa and Cornwall point out that within the context of the blurring of the lines between state, civil society and market actors we are experiencing a serious crisis of accountability. As responsibilities are transferred from the state to NGOs and the private sector the question of who is accountable to who for the provision of vital public services (particularly in the developing world) remains unanswered, therefore potentially threatening citizen and human rights (Cornwall 2001). This has contributed to a “greater crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the democratic institutions affecting their lives”. (Gaventa 2006)

Finally, in Voices of the Poor, a World Bank report by Narayan et al., surveys conducted on tens of thousands of people in the global south reveal that the poor of the world perceive a serious crisis in governance and are experiencing a growing loss of trust in domestic and international governance institutions. (Narayan 2000)

The Cause of the Deficit

We are, however, in need of a critique of the very foundations of the liberal model in order to explain the above mentioned loss of accountability, legitimacy and trust our democratic institutions are currently experiencing. We can find such a critique in the work by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Their most important contribution to our discussion lies in challenging the notion that democratic subjects possess an a priori identity. Liberalism attributes to the individual a conception of subjectivity which is inherent, objective, inalienable, which exists universally and is not created nor influenced by culture or society: humans are rational individuals before they are members of society. This particular articulation of identity is one of the root causes of why liberal democracy is now in crisis and cannot address the issue of the continuous alienation of the citizen from the sphere of decision making:

“The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject which sees individuals as prior to society, bearers of natural rights, and either utility maximizing agents or rational subjects.” (Mouffe, 2000)

For Laclau and Mouffe, the liberal conception of the nature of man is limited, and its acceptance (and at times imposition) defeats one of democracy’s main tenets: pluralism. The hegemony of the individualist framework precludes the possibility of existence of different forms of identification, namely a more communitarian one. If democracy is the realm of contestation amongst a plurality of different demands, identities, ideology etc. (legitimized by our inalienable right to freedom of expression) then the acceptance of only one form of identification defeats democracy’s purpose in the first place. Democracy, therefore, is the very terrain in which identification is constructed and articulated.

In this way, the cause of the democratic deficit resides in the crisis of the very individualist paradigm which has shaped, molded and informed democracy as we know it today. The tension between the conception of a rational individual and new (and potentially dangerous) forms of identification such as ethnic, fundamentalist, nationalist or religious ones are putting liberalism under incredible amounts of stress.

It is here that the dimension of participation enters the discourse of democratic theory. Participation, informed by radical plural democracy, embraces the moment of democratic contestation and condemns attempts at defining once and for all democracy’s ultimate nature. For Laclau and Mouffe, the very act of naming and defining what the terms democracy, liberty, equality or justice entail (these being prime examples of empty and floating signifiers) always involve an act of exclusion. Therefore the only legitimate democratic framework would be one which would consider the continuous contestation between different ideals to be the most “just” expression of democratic exercise rather than trying to fix meaning once and for all. Hence participatory democracy’s stress on inclusion, extension of rights and extension of citizenship so that the moment of contestation can be nurtured by as many different forms of identification and demands as possible. We will return to the specifics and consequences of participatory democracy later.

A Reflection

We must however still ask a paramount question: if liberalism is not delivering its promise for a bright new democratic future and the pursuit of happiness for all, then why are we not able change system? Why do we still consent? Zizek is right in pointing out the fact that we were able to mobilize billions of dollars of tax-payer money in the matter of hours in order to fix a financial system which is still dependent on booms and busts, yet we are unable to face up to the environmental crisis or world hunger (problems created by the inherent contradictions of the financial system in the first place).

The root of our consent lies in our total unconscious acceptance of the individualist paradigm with its strongest component being the inseparable binomial: individual freedom-free markets; and that is why, deep down in all of us, we thought it necessary to save a faltering capitalist order rather than seizing the opportunity to create meaningful and sustainable change. Within the liberal collective unconscious, changing or reforming free markets equates to giving up individual freedom.

In its struggle to emancipate itself from the yoke of tyranny (namely through the historical sequence: enlightenment-II WW-fall of the soviet bloc), I believe the West has lost its ability to confront problems collectively. Liberation discourse, in its purest sense, has effectively freed the individual from all external influence exerted on it. And free we are indeed, yet the process of liberation from government, from collective responsibility, from tyranny, etc. has left us, well, with nothing. We are free from all constraints: the individual has been emancipated and is autonomous…but what is he or she left with? This is probably one of the most important cruxes at the heart of the liberal crisis. All the individual creativity, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (actions which are possible only because of  the individual’s autonomy from the collective) cannot ever dream of dealing with the financial meltdown or the environmental crisis for the simple reason that individual action cannot resolve problems which are global. So what are we missing? What have we lost in our glorious pursuit of freedom? I believe we have quite simply lost the “we”.

The key point here is to realize that the crisis we are experiencing now is a collective crisis: it is affecting all of humankind across cultures, classes and continents. The crisis has not been caused by individual irresponsibility nor can it be fixed by virtuous individual behavior. Our unsustainable system can be transcended solely if it is understood that the problem is rooted in a “we” and not in fact in an “I”.

The answer, however, does not lie in the institution of a “we” as a tree-hugging “global village” where brown, yellow, and white children hold hands in a circle and sing “we are the world”. Nor does it lie, as Marxists and radical Libertarians alike see it, in freeing the “we” through the (violent) removal of a conspiratorial corporate elite which “puppeteers” the politico-economical infrastructure. The radical dimension of recognizing the “we” allows us to detect that the root of the problem lies in our consent to the liberal order, and, more specifically, in our consent to the symbolic, ontological and teleological dimensions of liberalism.

On Participation and Plurality

So we return to our initial question: why is participation important? Participation, in the terms proposed to us by the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, is important because it is not presented as a panacea. Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism have been presented as paradigms with which to achieve a “just society”, yet we have witnessed the disastrous consequences that all three ideologies have had on the past century. The relativist point here is that there is no panacea in the first place, and that the heart of democracy lies exactly in the confrontation amongst different interpretations of what constitutes the “we” in democracy. Recognizing the moment of contestation between differing demands is realizing the radical plural dimension of democracy. Especially in Laclau’s most recent work, it is increasingly clear that it is the very act of contestation (antagonism) and alliance building (equivalential chains) which produces subjectivity, identification and ultimately a hegemonic order (popular identities) (Laclau 2004). Denying healthy confrontation through the imposition of one “objective” and “universal” form of identification is dangerous.

Therefore we must resist saturating democratic theory solely with notions of representation, the rule of law and consensus building, and understand that extending rights and citizenship coupled with the inclusion of citizens within the decision making process is at the heart of democratic theory and can begin to provide alternative venues through which we can begin to solve our collective problems and reduce global injustices. Participatory democracy is therefore a perpetual process of democratic contestation which must provide a venue for all, and include all in democratic deliberation and contestation alike.

“And the fact that this must be envisaged as an unending process should not be cause for despair because the desire to reach a final destination can only lead to the elimination of the political and the destruction of democracy.” (Mouffe, 2000)

“It is only when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality.” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1989)


Cornwall, A. Gaventa, J. (2001) “Bridging the Gap: Citizenship, Participation and Accountability” In PLA Notes No. 40: 32-35. International Institute for Environment and Development

Dahl, R. (2000) “A Democratic Paradox?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 1 PP. 35-40

Gaventa, J. (2006) “Triumph, Deficit or Contestation? Deepening the “Deepening Democracy” Debate”. IDS Working Paper 267. Institute of Development Studies

Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. Verso

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Verso

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. Verso

Narayan, D. et all (2000) Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change. Washington, DC. World Bank

Skocpol, T. (2003) Diminished Democracy: from membership to management in American civil life. University of Oklahoma Press

Zizek, S. (2009) First as Tragedy, then as Farce. Verso

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Participatory Democracy, political theory, post-structuralism

One response to “The Democratic Deficit, Crisis and Participatory Democracy

  1. Pingback: Democratic Theory and Participatory Democracy « El Poncho Verde

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